By popular demand, I am posting the short story I wrote for my dystopian writing class. It is entitled “Dear Ma”. I read the first letter at my first ever real-life-adult reading!
I suppose this message is long overdue. The one I send to you apologizing for running oft. But now that it comes to writing it, I don’t feel the need to apologize no more. Apologize for what, Ma? For living?
But that isn’t the tone I meant to take. You know I have a habit of rambling when I’m nervous.
Life on Mars is what it is. Colder, I think, than I thought. There’s plenty to do every hour of the day. Terra-forming and cultivating water and all that. You’d be bored stiff up here. There’s not yet time for music or for art or for joy.
Every now and then I sneak in a few drawings right before bedtime. I draw the dust-storms from a distance, and the sunlight coming off the ice-caps. Sunlight is different here even. The same sun but further away, a different angle. Who knew such things were possible?
You told me not to go. You told me to stay in that last conversation we had. Before I packed up and slunk out of your life. In the kitchen whose details I can still pick out: the rooster clock always a few minutes ahead, to keep you moving, you said, the hand towels that smelled a little of mildew, and the kettle on the stove always a few seconds away from boiling.
I recall those things sometimes in the night, when I feel the weight of this alien planet on me, making it harder for me to breathe.
But I’m rambling again, Ma, and I apologize for that.
There wasn’t nothing for me back home. The smog so thick it felt like pea-soup, and the news reporting sandstorms coming this way or snowstorms going that way and we were always either burning or freezing.
And the blinking out one by one by one of other species. Constellations going quiet in the night sky.
I know it was our fault, but I didn’t want to be the one to pay the price. Didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in those giant terrariums where you couldn’t see the future, couldn’t see the past, only saw the day-in day-out trudge.
I suppose it ain’t that much better here, Ma. But at least we’re working towards something and not away from.
I’m sorry the way I left it. Jenny won’t grow up with her big brother. Only the shadow of him. And I miss her. And I miss you. And I wisht that things had shook out differently.
Why did you dig in, Ma? What could you see on Earth that might have made it all right? Or did you simply believe that life wherever it burrows itself would wind up about the same.
I see it already up here. I don’t want to acknowledge it, but I do. The captain talked about a new chance, a new way of doing things, living with our new planet. But I feel already, the digging in, the greed.
My bunkmate, Robinson, said they found a passel of diamonds some ways west of the settlement, buried underneath the ice-caps. He says they plan on mining them up.
“For what?” I asked.
“Diamonds is useful,” Robinson said. “Use em for lasers and nonsense.”
But in his eyes I saw that glimmer. Humans are gonna soil their bed wherever they go, and justifications will come in later.
I miss you, Ma.
I didn’t tell you this earlier, but I been drawing you up here, too. Your face and Jenny’s, already etched in my memory’s eye. Good to have you with me wherever I end up.
See, they’re talking already of Next-Planet. Already preparing for it. When Mars fails the way Earth did, then off we scramble and maybe I’ll scramble with them.
It might be harder to send transmissions then.
I am sorry, Ma. For the way I left you. Sorry I abandoned you. I hope you are still finding time for art and music.
I remember you told me, “Without something more, the soul shrivels up, and without a soul you can never mind about the rest.”
So I think that when I can, I’m gonna start to show my drawings. And who knows but I’ll be the first artist on Mars.
I love you, Ma. And I love Jenny. And I think about you both all the time.
I hope that love, like starlight, can travel the distance of space.
I ain’t heard back from you yet. Though whether that’s on account of transmission failure or on account that you are angry I don’t rightly know.
I know I said a lot of things in my last letter.
Mars is the red planet they say, but my life has recently become blue. I was transferred from terra-farming to the cap. Those diamonds they found turned out to just be the beginning. There’s a whole mining operation up on the ice now. And I’m up in the heart of it.
The sun, though still weaker, is intensified by the ice. Even under the layers of gear, my skin sometimes catches and I have burns for the next few days. I try to move quickly. To keep moving seems to be my way.
The descent down into the mine is treacherous. First the flight of stairs cut into the ice down and down and down, worn almost smooth by boot after boot. Then once we’re down deep enough there’s the elevator shaft to lower us into the mine proper. It moves so smooth that elevator, I feel almost as though nothing changes as at all.
I have nothing to compare it to, but the mine is dark, lit only by fluorescent spotlights every few yards. It’s cold in the tunnels and damp as well.
We walk around crouched over, beetles scuttling through the dark. Mining for diamonds.
The work is harder, but we have more time off. I have more time for my drawings. Or more truthfully, more time to drop bone-weary into my bed.
I think back to learning to draw with you and Jenny in the terrarium. I think back to watching those lines so straight and smooth under your hand coming out jagged and jarred through my shaking paw. But you told me to keep on, so I have.
My former bunkmate, Robinson, came with me on the transfer. He’s a decent enough fellow. And that’s all we aim for here on Mars, decent enough.
There’s a number of us who came as volunteers, you remember. Propaganda, you called it. A chance for a new life, said I. But there’s also a number of us here on account of criminal records.
The crims are kept in separate settlements, under guard, but we work all together. They’re decent enough people, too. All with stories, same as the rest of us. I met one woman named Caroline. She was sentenced for killing her father, a man who brutalized and molested her since before she could speak. I don’t see how any court could find her guilty for that.
But she’s here anyway. And we sometimes get to talking.
We all get a little stir-crazy up here. Some of us blow off steam with illegal gambling rings or by picking fights. There’s no way to get alcohol and anyhow the captain wouldn’t hold with it even if it were safe to consume. So instead we act punch-drunk whenever we can.
One person will start it off.
“I’m gone,” they’ll say and start swaying crazily, staggering through the halls banging on doors. “Gooone,” they’ll shout and we howl in response.
“Drunk,” we shout back. “Drunk as a skunk! Four sheets to the wind!”
We hop up and down, dancing with each other in maddened frenzied circles, kicking the walls and doors, breaking bottles and pulling bedding from the bunks.
And as soon as the hall guards show up we settle right down. Not a drop of alcohol in our systems. Some of us wake up the next day with shadow-hangovers anyway.
Some of the miners are joining the Next-Planet movement, Next-Plan for short. Some have added their names to the transfer list home. But to my knowledge, no one from that list has ever returned.
I keep on drawing, Ma. I keep on hoping to hear from you one way or the other.
Every six or seven days, I get one day off, and then I go out walking on the caps. I follow the road connecting the settlement to the mine until I get out of sight of everything. And then out there on the tops of the ice is the sun, the same old sun just a little askew. I feel its warmth and see this great red planet stretching out its arms all around me. And it’s times like those, Ma, that I think I just might be happy.
I am in some trouble and I wish now more than ever I could hear your voice.
You always told me to trust people only up to a point. Well, I’ve gone and found that damn point.
Robinson isn’t entirely to blame. Only his big fat mouth.
We got scooped up into the belly of the beast and now I’m twiddling my thumbs here in the stockades. And damn if we don’t deserve it.
I keep thinking about the one time I was arrested on Earth. And your face when you came to bail me out of jail.
“Well,” you asked on the ride home. “Was it worth it?”
And I was so ashamed I couldn’t look you in the eyes.
I don’t know that I could do it now.
We were just talking. All right, and planning. A little talking. A little planning. Next-Plan.
We can’t keep working here, can’t keep up in the diamond mine. Can’t go back, not to where we came from. With more people dying, or losing the few jobs left, and the lights flickering. It’s all going to end, Ma.
We got the news back before we were stockaded. Saw the way the terrariums were consolidating. And the buccaneers stopping shipments. The starvation. God, it’s all ending. Even for those who are still alive.
Even for Jenny.
I can’t write to her. Because she might read it. I’d rather be the long lost saint than the found sinner.
I am in the stockades now because Robinson and I and Caroline and a whole bunch of crims and Earth-siders, made a plan to steal a ship and head on out to the next moon. Just a small ship mind you with some basic terra-forming gear. The fleet would hardly miss it, but the captain called it mutineering. Like any of us know what that word means.
So we’re in the stockades which is better than working those goddamn mines any longer.
The worst part is that I’m not allowed to draw in here. And that’s like losing my arms and my feet and my sense of smell and my taste all in one. And I feel myself drawing closer and closer in and shrinking down on myself.
And I’m writing this letter over and over again in my head knowing that it will never be sent, because, Ma, they told me while I was in here that there is no one left to send it to.
There is nothing but time in the stockades. And in my waking-nightmares I see five doors.
I do not want to think about door number five.
Door number one.
I am with you, we are both younger and the years have still been kind. We are at the table and there is a bowl between us. We are mixing, mixing, mixing something. Something with flour and sugar but no eggs because eggs are the kind of expensive we cannot afford even now when Pa is still alive. Still breathing. Still shouting curse words at us when he isn’t at his job.
It is warm in the kitchen and I can smell the flour mixing in with the sugar and the water opening it all up because water is magical. And we know that, oh we know that.
We are mixing the bowl and the sun is still shining and my sister is not yet born. And I am everything that you ever wanted in the world. And we are happy.
I do not want to think about door number five.
Door number two.
I am older, perhaps I am fifteen, Jenny is ten and just learning to ride a bike. Up and down the street, up and down the street she goes and I, like a good big brother watch and occasionally taunt. She is turning a corner, right where the terrarium ends, the cul-de-sac on the edge of the world, and she turns too fast. The tire wobbles and then she is on the ground and gravel is in her knee and she is crying.
I am at her side before I can think. I am picking her up with more than my scrawny fifteen-year-old strength. Because she is my sister and there is blood, oh god, blood, and I can’t let anything happen. Not to her, not to my baby sister. Who I hate and love and would kill for.
You put a band-aid on and the world is restored.
Door number three.
My father is dead. What can I say that I should have said before? I am angry and I am broken inside and I am twenty years old and cannot feel all the things I should feel yet.
It is snowing outside the terrarium, so inside the funeral is lit only by the bright fluorescence. We are gathered next to the incinerator where his body becomes ash to be returned to the soil to feed us. As he fed us in life. So he feeds us in death.
What can you say about a man who terrorized you and loved you in equal parts? A man who had to sit and watch the world shrink around him, and so could do nothing more than shrink his own world still further. How tight can you go until that pressure explodes into some black hole of an existence?
He is dead now anyway. And that is that.
Door number four.
Door number four.
Door number four.
It is the nighttime and you are tired. I am tired. We are tired.
I am home from my job. Another day on the farms knowing I am not bringing in enough food to keep the terrarium running. Knowing that it is all coming down around us. So small, I am telling you, it is all so small.
You don’t know, you say, you can’t remember what it was like before. So how can you possibly compare? You don’t know what we’ve lost.
So then how? I am asking, angry because I do not understand. And in my mind I think, how are you better than him? How are you better than that bastard? You are letting yourself shrink.
It isn’t about fighting, you say. It’s about living. And you can’t run away from life just because you’re scared. Just because it isn’t what you thought it would be.
It’s not running, I say. It is growing. It is changing. Hoping.
For you, maybe you say. And you shrug. And maybe that was what did it. That slump of the shoulders. Maybe that was enough to send me out of the house and down to the loading dock that took me from our terrarium out to the space station and from there on that long backwards looking trip to the red planet. And there there there I was away on the other side of everything I’d ever known because of a shrug of the shoulders and an answer that I wouldn’t understand until it was too late.
But I do not want to look behind door number five. Please do not make me look behind door number five.
Because behind that door, which in my mind is stained with blood, I see your face aged by years I did not witness and weighed down by burdens I did not ease. And above all I see your hands folded that were once always moving. Hands that mixed a bowl with me. And hands that held a paintbrush even when the sky was falling around us. And hands that placed a bandaid on my sister’s scraped knee. And your hands, yes, your hands, they are still, still, still, still forever. Still.
Yes, it’s me. And you better shut the fuck up for once and listen. You never were good at that even when Ma had to whup you.
So, I got not a lot to say, except Ma is dead and I’m coming to Mars.
Don’t get all proud and mighty like you was right the whole time cuz you ain’t. But I might as well stick with my only remaining family even if you are a goddamn yellow-bellied son of a liverwurst and a coward and a runaway.
And I ain’t so mad that you left, cept you left without saying goodbye. So I’m gonna have to slug you a good one to tell you hello.
Things got about just as bad as you might have thought. Lights going out and we was eating nothing but that compressed shit you probably eat in space.
And then Ma went ahead and died. So that about did it for me.
I signed up for the next shuttle out. And on account of you was already there they said, sure.
Plus I think they are wanting some more of us female types up there.
I heard about the captain. She sounds like a badass. I’m looking forward to meeting her.
Don’t do nothing crazy until I get to where you’re at, though. I don’t want to travel all this way and have to pick up your life for you again.
Like I did all the time back home.
Is it strange, William, that I’m actually excited to be going?
You remember that part and I’ll have to slug you twice.
Well, I’m out of there! That’s what they said in the old screeners. Those ones we used to shoot up on the wall when we were tired. My favorite were the ones about the animals. All those bizarre critters we lost. The big cats and the dogs and so many kinds of birds. I remember hearing them on the screener. Sounded like creaking metal or falling water or something I don’t know what to name.
It was quiet on Mars except the noise we people made. And the wind.
It’s quiet in space, too.
Oh, I done forgot to tell you, but we busted out. Turns out some of the crims were known for their skill at jailbreakin’. And darn it if we didn’t just blast free from the stockades.
We stole more than we meant originally.
Caroline calls it liberating. But I don’t know that I quite agree.
You should’ve seen the captain’s face when she saw us sailing off out of the atmosphere. I didn’t see it either, but I imagine it was perty damn funny.
It’s happening. Next-Plan. I feel in my blood already a quickening.
I’ve been working on drawings of our crew. Robinson, of course, with his thick hair, dark eyebrows so much storm clouds I can’t help wondering when they’ll start to rain. Caroline with her eyes deep as the mineshafts.
The leader of our motley crew calls themself Mercury. It’s a little on the nose but no one really cares because we’re moving on again. Three hundred of us. We’re moving on, places hardly anyone’s been before.
And maybe we’ll die along the way. But maybe we’ll do a bit of living first.
You blockhead! If it don’t beat all that I show up to Mars, all ready for a tearful family reunion, set to start a new life on strange soil. And what should I find but the captain mad as hornets on account of my older brother done run oft. Again!
Well, if this message ever reaches you I damn well hope you’re pleased with yourself.
I almost wisht Pa were alive just to cuss you out better than I can.
If you ain’t the most pigheadedest of men I’ll eat my helmet.
I’m picking up where you left off I guess.
Working the new farms. There’s a harvest due in a couple of weeks. We’re working on storing it for the next arrivals. We’re having to make do with fewer harvesters than we planned. Thanks to some ginormous asshole has already been mentioned.
I like it here on Mars.
Didn’t plan on that. But there’s something real about working new land. There’s something about the people I’m working with, a willingness to live and breathe. To hold the branches back so as they don’t hit the next person’s face.
The captain is just as cool as I figured she’d be. Don’t know why you got so upset. Guess you never liked to work all that hard.
Captain has taken a sort of liking to me. So every once in a while, I go visit her in her room at the end of the barracks. It’s neat in there, course, and she has a whole stack of books. Real old-fashioned books the kind bound in leather and whatnot. She says she wants to “preserve them for posterity”. I think if you ain’t been so numb-skulled you and she could’ve gotten along fine.
She grew up in a terrarium not so far from ours. Small world don’t seem to do it justice. Shrinking world might be more apt.
Anyway, dearest asshole of a brother, if you get this, know that I’m pissed at you. And you better bring your sorry hide back here soon. I ain’t chasing you across the known and unknown. Not even if you’re the only kin I got.
I ain’t got the words to tell you that I’m sorry. Or how sick I felt when your transmissions finally done caught up with me.
You got every reasonable right to hate my guts. Only I hope that you won’t.
I’ve got news!
We found the Next-Plan. Can’t tell you where on account of the captain’s probably reading this, too. Do hope she ain’t still sore at us. Sorry, captain.
It’s beautiful out here, though. Blue like you can’t imagine. They called Earth the blue planet. They clearly never found this place. It starts out all soft and dusky in the mornings, dusty kind of, and then peaks into a sheen aquamarine come noontime. Purples, violets, waterfalls of color, sis! It’s the most amazing place I ever been.
I will admit. We don’t quite have the discipline the captain kept on Mars. We’re mostly all off on our own. A few of us are making an attempt at cultivation. Knowing as we do that the supplies won’t last forever. Or even for very long.
Robinson is head of resources, which means quite a few can get stolen and bribed away. There’s a black market up here before there’s a regular old market. But I’m working hard. Working anyway.
I have had to stop my drawing for a time, but I’m saving up the sights for when things calm down. There’s the ridge on the other side of where our ships touched down. Sometimes I go out walking towards it when the sun is lower near the horizon, it’s hot here, for certain, but I can make these treks if I make sure to take breaks and hydrate.
Well, the ridge is just about the strangest thing I ever set eyes on, whirls and formations all twisted and bizarre, like walking through blue hell. I just look and look, storing away for when I can be drawing again. There’s this one rock, like two devils locked in combat, dancing, sis, like you never seen.
All right, if I’m being honest. It isn’t that I don’t have time. It’s partly that. But I also been ordered not to draw no more. By Caroline of all people. She’s got this notion that drawing and other types of art-making will distract from survival.
I don’t have the words to tell her that art-making is necessary for not distracting from.
We shacked up together, Caroline and I. We talk about maybe starting a family if we can get this little colony kicked forward. If that time comes I’ll tell Caroline and maybe our future children all about art and drawing and writing and why we need it. They’ll understand.
It’s big out here, sis. I can’t tell you how exactly. But I can finally, finally stretch my arms. I can finally see something coming down the lane.
I suppose it might be my time to apologize, only I still hold as this is all your own damn fault.
The captain knows where you are. Of course she read your transmission to me. And of course she figured out where you’re at. She’s smart, that one.
She’s sent out a party to bring you in. I weren’t allowed to send this transmission until she left. And even now I’ll likely catch hell for it. But even though I think this is all your fault, I still don’t want to see my brother dragged back in chains. So if you get this, prepare to run, big bro.
You never knew how to be reasonable, always so idealistic. That’s why you and Pa was always at each other’s throats. You never knew to just keep silent, like me.
Sorry to bring up Pa like that.
Well, if I see you again soon. Which it seems likely I will, I thought to let you know. Mars is really growing. It’s taken its hits for certain, but we’re making it here. The first harvest we learned so much. And second and third we produced enough to sustain us through the year! Think of that, Willy!
And there’s an art gallery here now. Nothing as good as what you used to do, but real stuff anyway. I’m hosting a poetry reading. Me! Never did like the stuff on Earth, but somehow moving cross the galaxy done remind me of Ma and her voice at night reading us some old dead poet.
Now we got all the live and happening ones right here.
So if you come back, dear brother, which I hope you won’t, but if you do. Well things are certainly looking up.
Not sure if this’ll reach you first or I will. Captain found us. There was a fight. People died on both sides. I didn’t kill no one. I didn’t even fire the gun Caroline shoved into my hand.
She’s dead now. Robinson, too.
Not sure why I’m not.
You may ask why we chose to fight. Why we’d risk killing and dying when there are so few of us left anyway.
Don’t know that I can tell you cept that we were meant to be free, Jenny. We all of us were meant to declare our own lives our own, live em as we see fit.
This ain’t the way I wanted my life to go. But for a while there I had open skies and enough room to stretch my arms. I weren’t stuck in no terrarium or shoved down a mineshaft.
I’m in chains now. Just like you said.
And I don’t know what they’ll do to me when we get back to Mars.
I’m glad you found some poetry at last, little sis.
William. I’m sorry to hear about Caroline. I’m sorry that things happened the way they did. That weren’t right. That weren’t the way it should’ve gone.
I’ll speak to the captain when you get back. We’ll make it right. I know we will.
There’s time enough and space up here for understanding.
I’ll be sure of it.
I heard you tried talking to the captain. I appreciate that more than you can know. But don’t worry, sis, I led my life the way I wanted to. Right up till the end.
The only thing I regret now is that I don’t have pen and paper in here. I can see some of the world through a little glass window. I can see the streets of the new city, hustling and bustling, more people now than I ever thought there could be.
I heard the first child was born here. The first real Martian, Jenny. How amazing is that?
I know I’m going to die soon. I know I am. That’s something, too, isn’t it? The first execution on Mars. They’ll have to remember me now. What all my damn drawing couldn’t do, my bad habit of liking people too quickly.
There were so many things left to draw, though, Jenny. The way the stars looked in space. The impromptu baseball game on Next-Plan. It had to end when the ball got hit too far. Home-run, we shouted, and it was home.
The way Caroline looked when she was asleep. Her hair tossed all messy across her face, one arm stretched up over her head. So stubborn, she was, so certain even after all she been through.
Robinson when he caught hold of an idea, his face’d flash for a moment like lightning.
And those two devils fighting, or were they dancing, up there forever on Next-Plan. Ain’t that the way we all are, sis, trapped in our ways, in ourselves. Human wherever we run away to.
I hear you and the captain plan on getting hitched. A real wedding and everything. I’m happy for you, Jenny. I know you must’ve figured out your own peace. I ain’t holding nothing against you or against her.
Only sorry I won’t be there to give you away. We always talked about that back on Earth. You said you’d never dream of getting married to know half-wit sorry son-of-a-gun. So I guess you was right after all.
I knew I was saying good-bye to you then, Jenny. I didn’t think I’d have to do it all over again.
There’s so much to say, Jenny. So much to write down. So much left unspoken.
I’m sending to you the last one I ever drew. Back on Next-Plan, while Caroline was asleep. It’s what I imagined my family might look like. But I think it ended up looking more like the family I had.
I suppose it’s been too long. I should have written this message long ago and meant it.
I ain’t sorry, Ma. Not for none of it.
I spread my arms out wide and it took me across the galaxy.
And now, inevitably, it’s bringing me back home, Ma, to you.
Your son forever and always,